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Friday, January 27, 2012

"An Agnostic Defeat"


-Dublin Review
 [Reprinted in The Living Age, volume CCLXXII, January, February, March 1912]

There is no livelier task than rummaging in the litter of dead controversies. Every page turned over is quaint, not in the sense of being old, but in the sense of being new; in the sense of giving unexpected glimpses. Many of the most neglected are really the most recent; and one of these I stumbled across in some stray reading about the Victorian time. I think these pages the most appropriate place for a note on it, because the champion and (as I certainly think) the victor, in this forgotten fight was one so specially connected with this periodical, Mr. W. G. Ward. I do not deal with it here with any pretence for philosophic precision, but purely as the collision of picturesque personalities, and as a curiosity of literature.

Of these old controversies requiring some restatement, there are three broad types. First, of course, there is the historic quarrel about which even historians generally tell the truth. The pure point in dispute between Royalists and Roundheads is not wrongly stated, even by Macaulay or Green. Lord Macaulay's opinion that Parliament stood for the people is worth exactly as much as Lord Bolingbroke's opinion that the King would stand for the people. That is, it is worth a great deal, being the opinion of an able man. But it is correct to say that the Royalists did stand for kings, and the Roundheads did stand for parliaments. The Whigs (that is, the richer and less honest Roundheads), may have falsified the ideals, but they have not falsified the actual state symbols and legal proposals. The terms King's Man or Parliament Man do express what the immediate row was about. It is still open for modern men to take sides with King or Parliament—if any man now believes in either.

The second kind of ill-comprehended controversy is more curious. It is that in which everybody quotes and recalls the controversy, but nobody (in the general sense) has the faintest notion of what it was. We should think it odd if a man cherished the chivalric memory of Agincourt, but had never heard of the French or English. Yet there are cases exactly similar: in England the cause of the Jesuits and Jansenists is in just that position. Thousands have heard of Pascal and his utter rightness; of the Jesuits and their utter wrongness. But what they were discussing, no ordinary English gentleman knows. I asked a huge hall full of ordinary and extraordinary English gentlemen (it was at Cambridge), and nobody knew. To take a cruder case; in a humorous work lately published by Messrs. Horton and Hocking, it is stated that Scotch Calvinists who signed the Covenant "unfurled the flag of freedom." These two writers may have unfurled the flag, but they certainly have not unfurled the document. The Covenant explains, with admirable lucidity, that its whole object is the forcible suppression of all heresy, schism, and false doctrine. One might just as well say that Bonner unfurled the flag of freedom. This is the second kind: controversies that people are proud of, because they have forgotten all about them, and even what they were about.

But there is a third kind, more silent and in a way more sinister. There have been (I am more and more convinced) quarrels which were really important and dramatic, but which have been quietly dropped out of history, for an evident and even brazen reason. They have been dropped out because in those controversies the unpopular person had the best of it. I am more and more convinced of the fact, that the history of controversy, more than any other kind of history, has been falsified by frantic omission and slanderous silence. Whenever a controversialist was "going the way the world is going" (to quote the snobbish ideal of Matthew Arnold), his victories are commemorated with a trophy. But if a man fights a losing fight—then he is never forgiven if he does not lose. If he has the bad taste to get the victory when Fate (otherwise known as Fashion) has already begun to weep iron tears over his sure defeat—then it shall not be forgiven him. He has done an awful thing: he has avoided the unavoidable. His trophy is always razed, and his battle-field forgotten.

I came across this case, a case of that impersonal caprice whereby one debate is remembered and another forgotten among the many wars of Huxley. For some reason or other his one controversy with Mr. Gladstone about the Gadarene Swine has jumped into a journalistic immortality, and is still a matter of popular quotation and comment. Perhaps it was vaguely felt that there was something funny about pigs, or funny about devils, or funny about Mr. Gladstone. Perhaps the miracle was mixed up in British minds with the Irish question; for it was their intelligent habit to conceive the Irish people as comic pigs committing suicide on the advice of fiends. Perhaps they had some yet cloudier conception that Mr. Gladstone would conduct this argument, like all others, with a large chopper; whatever be the hook that has caught in the public memory, the memory of this one quarrel remains. In point of fact, though the controversy contains some of the best of Huxley's writings, and by no means the best of Gladstone's, it is increasingly doubtful whether Huxley here chose the best position for giving his agnosticism permanence. He professed the wish to separate the Christian ideal, as something plainly pure and eternal, from ancient demonology, as something plainly ludicrous and lost. But the subsequent developments of scepticism have been along lines very different and perhaps far less wholesome. Huxley defied the modern world to dispute common morals; but it has disputed them. He quoted the great phrase of Micah: "He hath shown thee, O man, that which is good; and what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God." He thought (being himself a healthy man) that this could not be doubted. But it has been doubted, not indeed by healthy men, but certainly by able and influential ones. "Does anyone think," wrote Huxley, "that the march of science can ever show that justice is worthless, or that mercy is unloveable?" One would think not: but it has shown that, to many very prominent people. Mr. George Moore did say that justice was worthless; Nietzsche did say that mercy was unloveable. But while these people cut themselves loose from common ethics, they were still pursued by uncommon experiences; Mr. Moore speaks of being sent to Ireland by a will not his own; and Nietzsche, since he believed in the Superman, could obviously believe in anything.

Thus, obviously, Huxley fails on both sides. The Christian ethics he thought indisputable, are disputed. The Christian supernaturalism, which he thought unnecessary, is so necessary that it has reappeared as heathen supernaturalism. In English literature at this moment there is much more demonology than theology. During any dinner or daily walk to-day one may meet an intelligent man who believes in diabolic possession, without believing in Christianity. One in every five or six of the novels which a novel reviewer has to open, is a compound of mad animality and mad spirituality; greedy and unclean as to the body, pitiless and panic-stricken as to the soul. No one who has really read such books will doubt the failure of Huxley's distinction. Modern thought has only lost the Saviour; it has kept the devils and the swine.

Now, suppose that I asked an average educated Englishman of my own generation, brought up in our agnostic atmosphere and Darwinian tradition, why Huxley and his Gadarene controversy are thus remembered, in what their yet arresting quality consists: he would probably answer somewhat as follows. "The controversy is important because it was the one great battle between rigid theology and relentless science. Huxley was the most acute and clear-headed rationalist of his day; against him appeared, as the champion of orthodoxy, an eloquent and brilliant statesman, traditional in temper and fervent in piety; but all his mellow scholarship and splendid language warred in vain against the disinterested and deadly logic of the scientist; because the truth is great, and must prevail. Though fought on the narrow field of Gadara, it was the decisive battle, the beginning of the age of reason."

Suppose he said this; and suppose that I answered, as I should answer, thus: The whole of your picture of the period and the personalities is false. Huxley was not a frigid and faultless logician, certainly not the great logician of his time. Huxley was much more of a man of letters than a man of science. His style (which was always admirable) influenced his thought, as it does with artists; his instincts and prejudices (which were generally manly and honorable) were constantly in him the motives of blind choice or impatient indifference. He would constantly throw over a scientific method upon an ethical impulse. He felt a more or less virile dislike of the moral smell of Spiritualism; and for the mere fun of expressing this dislike, he surrendered the whole theory of natural investigation. He said he would not take any trouble to hear the talk of curates and old women in the next town; and could do as well without the twaddle talked by the table-rappers. It may have been common sense; but it was not science. The conversation of curates and old women is as witty as the conversation of fossils; even that of crystals is not much more sparkling. The whole case for investigating fossils or crystals is that we must not leave a stone unturned in searching for truth. Once admit that a phenomenon can escape from all investigation by being a bore, and the Missing Link escapes for ever; for though he is missing, he certainly is not missed. Huxley's brilliant essays abound in these breezy and sincere inconsistencies; and, moreover, he often relied on a mere spirited dance of diction as much as Ruskin himself. When someone accused him of thus rhetorically recommending his thought, he replied that "gilding refined gold" was less futile in his view, "than plastering the fair face of Truth with that pestilent cosmetic, rhetoric." I think the face is pretty thoroughly plastered there; and very well plastered too. Never before, surely, was a man so rhetorical in maintaining that he was not rhetorical.

Moreover, though Huxley was always a fighter, it is by no means true that he was always a victor. It is most emphatically not true that cold reason was always on his side, and mere eloquence and mysticism on the other side. In the veritable history of the nineteenth century (I should say to my imaginary young friend) better logicians than Huxley asked him harder questions than he ever asked anybody: questions he could not answer. It is very rare in controversy that anyone cannot answer. That is what is meant by saying that no one is converted by argument: it only means that no one is silenced by it. Only in very rare cases, sometimes separated by centuries, is a controversialist really run through the brain as a duellist is run through the body. The heart can be pricked like a bladder; but the head can be kicked about like a football: it is only very, very rarely that it bursts. Yet in this case (I would continue to my eager listener) the modern head, the great agnostic brain, burst like a bombshell. In other words, very few controversialists have ever been really proved wrong. Among the very few was Huxley.

Let us take the small and special case to which I have already referred. Huxley, along with Mill and many older, and perhaps greater, men, attached himself to what was wrongly called the Experience Philosophy. Without attempting in this article (which is a mere study of the two intellectual types) to expound this philosophy with precision, I can easily expound it with essential fairness. It can be expounded in the two words of its title: The Experience Philosophy. It denied that there are (as countless sages, from Plato to Kant, say that there are) primary perceptions and authoritative acts of the mind itself. It said that every real fact was a fact proved by our own consciousness; it said that every generalization, however large and limpid and universal, was but a careful summary of such facts. The only things we can obtain directly are experiences. We can only obtain ideals, modes of thought, theories of evidence, indirectly. We may have, quite rationally, a general attitude towards gin, or cats, or cathedrals; but this attitude is derived from cathedrals, and cats, and gin. There can be no attitude towards them before they exist. However high and holy is the cathedral you build, you build it out of its bricks and stones; it consists of its materials. So (as men like Mill and Huxley would argue) however general and just be our ethical or religious ideal, it still consists of our experiences. We cannot trust any other mental process except experience.

Then (to speak figuratively) there was a silence; and then a clear and amiable voice was heard asking this question: "But experience depends upon memory. Why do you believe in memory?" The silence that followed that was longer; for the question has never been answered. I do not mean that nobody wrote or said anything more on the subject; as I have said, the head can outlast the heart; and the tongue and pen can go on working long after the brain has struck work. But no one has ever answered the question without surrendering the whole agnostic philosophy of experience. We all do wake up in our cradles with an attitude of confidence in the course of our experiences, which is, in its nature, anterior to those experiences. The assumption that what is in memory was in experience, is not an experience. It is an assumption. Faith in the past is not an experience; it is a faith.

The clear and amiable voice which asked this question was that of "Ideal" Ward, of the Oxford Movement and the Roman Conversion; who is now remembered chiefly as a champion of what people call obscurantism. Huxley, who (being a good judge of men) both admired and trusted him, once made a joke about Ward having a stake for heretics in his back garden. That joke is probably known more widely, and taken more seriously, than all their serious debates. The same sort of people who can only remember about Huxley a miracle which he regarded as a legend, can only remember about Ward, a phrase which he took as a joke. Why hearty levities of this kind are ever discussed seriously afterwards must be a mystery to any man who has had any friends; but they are so discussed—about W. G. Ward as about Dr. Johnson. The present writer, nevertheless, who has no other intention than the description of two controversial characters, and the curious public estimate of them, must strongly emphasize that one of them, W. G. Ward, was regarded as obscurantist. His voice was popularly supposed to come out of a kind of dungeon, where he was imprisoned by the Pope. Still his question was heard, through whatever obscuration of scuttling rats and clanking chains, and it seemed to be saying: "Experience depends on memory. Therefore memory cannot depend on experience. Why do you believe in memory?" I will not here dwell on the answers attempted by the older and more mellow rationalists; partly because they were not, in the upshot, worth dwelling on. Mill, as far as I can see, seems to have simply surrendered the point, and then dared the mystics to come a step farther. But Huxley, the man of the artistic temperament, is the man with whom I have sympathy. He seems to have been prompt and pugnacious as ever; to have been early in the breach. He said, in substance: "I believe in memory, because I have so often experienced its reliability."

Now, when he said that, there ought to have been a crash and reverberation through all the market-places of mankind; as if some colossal god had fallen down. Huxley was a very great man; it is not often that a great man falls flat on his face. I need not labor the point; it is plain enough. That Huxley ever, even once, experienced the reliability of memory could only be known to him—as Ward pointed out in reply—by memory itself. And obviously one cannot prove the truthfulness of memory by assuming it. Experience of the triumph of memory is, at this moment, memory. It is not experience. Once grant that yesterday was a dream, and you cannot depend on its entire agreement with the day before yesterday; which may be a dream too. In short, here was one of the very few cases in history in which a great sceptic received, in equal fight, an answer he could not answer.

Now, why is this, popularly speaking, a little forgotten fight, and the wrangle about the Gadarene Swine a great remembered one? Not because the subject was insignificant, or even unpopular. People talk in trains and trams about remembering and forgetting far more frequently (to say the least of it) than they talk about keeping pigs, or being directly influenced by demons. And, broadly, it must be less dramatic to discuss whether one old miracle happened, than to discuss whether anything ever happened. Not because the opponent was inferior; for though Ward could not have made the Midlothian campaign or the great speeches on Ireland, he was much brighter and clearer than Gladstone in this particular trend of controversy.

No; the reason is primarily that which I suggested at the beginning: the same very simple reason which makes most English people more familiar with the Battle of Waterloo than with the Battle of Fontenoy. Agnosticism is now not only a fashion, but a convention; and, like all conventional things, it perceives the memory of its triumphs, and not of its mistakes. But the cause is at once deeper and somewhat less general than this. The agnosticism now fashionable is of a very special sort; and Huxley exactly suits it. It is agnostic, but it cannot be called rationalist; it depends largely, as Huxley did, upon more or less wholesome habits of mind, and more or less generous associates of ideas; it is strongly affected by the atmosphere of the arts. Under all its intellectual pretentiousness it is, if not a surrender, at least a renunciation. It is not so much a refusal to believe as a refusal to think. Huxley is not the Wise Man of the stoics, but he is rather the Wise Man of the Pragmatists, incredulous of what he considers superstition, but also impatient of what he considers sophistry. There are some things which, as a sensible man, he will not believe. But there are other things which, as a healthy man, he will not doubt. Of whatever there is in the modern vagueness that is really kindly, sensible, instructive, appreciative, humorous, understanding the art of life— of whatever remains good in the late Victorian vagueness, the highest expression was Huxley.

But the sort of mental fog through which Huxley looms larger than life is exactly the sort of fog in which a man like Ward is invisible. For he appears to stand for exactly the opposite mental attitude to that of our comfortable chaos. He was an extremist: but he was an extremist in the rational, as well as the religious, direction. While he affirmed the dogmas of the believer with an apocalyptic absoluteness worthy of a pontifical throne, he also asked the questions of the sceptic with a ferocious clarity which might have landed weaker minded people in a padded cell. We talk of extremes meeting; and there is a sense in which Ward looked for the truth in the place where extremes meet. Like Huxley, he could possess a rational method with a religious ideal; but unlike Huxley, he did not mix them up. He had two strings to his bow; but he pulled both the logical string and the dogmatic string to the utmost—short of breaking the bow. He had two roads homewards; but they would only meet if either were followed absolutely as far as they would go. According to him, we may say authority and enquiry were reconcilable—but only if they were very overwhelming authority and very far-reaching enquiry. It is only by accepting all the Church's pronouncements that he can actually be forced to admit that reason is right and reliable. And it is only by pursuing the matter out to the last crumbling cliff of scepticism that he can really show that memory is reliable and right He is an ultramontane in a special sense; in that his pilgrimage, like the path in a fairy tale did truly lead him "over the hills and far away." I am not concerned with how far this mental character, or that of Huxley, is acceptable to the reader or to myself. I only remark that the posture of the times places this kind of character for the present at an enormous disadvantage. Men have too much intellectual vanity to understand his submission, and at the same time too much intellectual levity to test all the links of his logic. Ward could think; but Huxley could write; and this age is much more influenced by art than by thought. True thought, like the sword in some Eastern story, because of its very sharpness is to us as invisible as a hair. 

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